In His Shoes - Mark From Ella's Kitchen
Mark Cuddigan: Yeah, maybe it is just baby food, but we’d like to have actually much, much deeper connections and do much more than just supply baby food.
We need the great companies now stand up. To lead and inspire. How are you persuading and inspiring other companies to follow?
Becky Holland: Hello and welcome to the No Bull Marketing Ideacast. I'm Becky Holland.
My guest today is Mark Cuddigan. CEO of Ella's Kitchen. With 31% of the UK baby food market, Ella’s is the market leader by some considerable margin, [a] B Corp with a mission to help children love food forever. In my very first conversation with Mark, we covered a lot of ground. Impostor syndrome and his four passions in life I'm absolutely delighted to welcome Mark on the show today as my guest for the eighth and final episode of season two of the No Bull Ideacast. Season three will be out in the Spring, so you can get your fix again then. But for now, sit back, plug in your headphones, and get ready to be entertained, enlightened and, well, hopefully spend the best, most insightful, and potentially joyful 30 or so minutes of your day. No pressure on my guest whatsoever.
BH: Hi Mark welcome to the show.
MC: Thanks for having me.
BH: Can you just very briefly introduce yourself as you would introduce yourself to anybody else?
MC: My name’s Mark I am the CEO at Ella’s Kitchen. We are, as you said, the UK's number one baby food company. I joined about 11 years ago, so the company is 16 years old. It's best place I've ever worked. It’s one of the loves of my life. What else can I tell you? I'm married, I've got two kids who are 13 and 10 and a massive dog, who’s behind me who’s very quiet at the moment.
BH: Unlike my dog who’s desperate to get out. Hang on let me just let Hector out. You shouldn't be on podcasts, Hector, you're a pain off you go. Right…
BH: In the time you took, since you took over as CEO at Ella’s Kitchen, you've led the company on quite a significant journey, and particularly, kind of with a focus around sustainability. Now if I've got my facts right and if I’ve wrote my notes right from our first conversation you’ve specifically become only the second company in the world, after Ben and Jerry's, to become B Corps as a PLC. You’ve also grown the business from 25 million to 100 million (pounds) turnover. So that's if… if my maths is right about a million-pound turnover per employee but I don't think you don't call them employees, do you? All your people have got really interesting job titles, is that right?
MC: Yes, that's correct. We have grown, over the last 11 years by that much. So, everything that we do we like to look at the world as a child. We call it our kids-first philosophy and that runs through everything. If you came to the barns, where we work just outside Henley, the kids love coming in and they loved the colours and just the…everything, the way it's laid out. So yes, our job titles are one, so if you’re Finance Director, your title will be Head of Sums, for example. So that's what, how children would call it.
BH: Very good.
MC: So, careers is Head of Keeping People Happy.
BH: Saying what it is, rather than some grandiose job title that nobody really understands, the job title doesn't really tell you anything does it?
MC: No, it doesn’t tell you anything at all. No, it varies so much from company to company, doesn't it?
BH: Yeah exactly.
So, you’ve talked about the kind of kids-first philosophy, and I think everybody has an idea, they kind of know the packaging, they think they know who Ella's Kitchen are. But what exactly does Ella's Kitchen do.? Are you just a baby food company?
MC: *Sighs* just?
BH: I put that word in there on purpose!
MC: Without question I am very defensive at the at the best and worst of times, but particularly about Ella's Kitchen. So, I'm going to pick you up on ‘are we just a baby food company?’.
We are a baby food company; we’re sold in 30 countries around the world and that's what we're famous for. But I would like to think - I hope - that the brand has much deeper connections with everybody that buys our products and, more generally, in the market and I was just talking to someone actually in my Sums team, in my finance team, I was in an event at Anthropy last week which is amazing event in Cornwall about 1500 people from business charities, politicians, sort of I guess it was framed as kind of Davos for the UK but really trying to move forward from a sustainability point of view and what we could put the country to look like from a social point of view, post-COVID and it was absolutely amazing.
Two things happened which, for me, kind of shone a light on how people perceive us I guess and the depth of appeal.
First one is a really, like minor thing. But it happens the whole time you know I was checking in and there were lots of…there were five different areas where you have to check in and get your badge for the week and the lady gave me my badge and as I was walking off, she just went ‘Oh my God he's from Ella's Kitchen!’
BH: Oh wow!
MC: And this happens to me frequently. It drives my wife absolutely crazy. But my phone cover, as you can see, your listeners won’t be able to see this, is an Ella’s Kitchen one, and I’ll often be sat on the tube, scrolling through my phone, as unfortunately we all do, and the person opposite will say ‘excuse me where did you get your phone case from?’ and I'll say ‘Oh I work at Ella’s Kitchen, and that’s followed by
‘No way what's it like?’ We have this conversation and they’re like ‘Can I have one of those phone covers?’
‘Sorry you have to work at Ella’s.’ There are a whole load of reasons why I get that response. I either get two responses when I say work at Ella’s Kitchen. One is ‘What do you do? Do you do sort of utensils or something? The person won’t have children so won’t have heard of us, and honestly the second response is usually ‘Wow that's amazing, tell me more about the company.’ and its a genuine…the person is genuinely excited.
So, I was talking in an event at Anthropy, and I was asked about our response to COVID, and I said you know we did three things as a business and like I'm really, really proud of these. So, the first thing we did is we realised that stressed parents were if you remember there was panic buying and the supermarkets are running out of stock and so immediately [we did] three things.
First one is we prioritise putting stock into our online shop so we could guarantee that parents could get next day delivery of our stock. OK well that's fair enough you just think that's just supply and demand right.
The second thing we did is, or what I did was before furlough was even a word that we understood what it was, you know I probably thought, if you asked me pre-COVID, that it was something about horses jumped over. But we got everybody together and, bear in mind half of the people that work in Ella's Kitchen are parents.
We everybody together and said - this was on the first day after Boris announced you had to work from home so no matter how much work you were able to do, for the entirety of the pandemic you will be paid in full if you have dependents at home children got a home school, or elderly parents whatever it maybe if you have dependents at home, they are the absolute priority you must prioritise them. So, if you're able to do no work at all that is absolutely fine all we ask is you tell your manager so we can decide to stop doing things. About six weeks after lockdown, we stopped doing over half of all of the projects at Ella’s Kitchen.
So that's the second thing we did, and the third thing, which has absolutely nothing to do with me, our Good Stuff we do Team, realised that the food banks who rely on excess stock from manufacturers were not going to have any product. Because of the panic buying, all the manufacturers were supplying all the stock to the supermarkets so there was no excess stock. So instead, we prioritised getting stop to the food banks, who were serving the most vulnerable children and babies in society now we gave away a million pouches which for a company of our size is quite a lot through the pandemic.
Now I said this, at this event at Anthropy, after this event, this lady came up to me and just held my arm. You know when someone you don't know comes up and like sort of grabs your arm and looks you in the eye? It's quite powerful and she looked at me and she said thank you. Now my head was spinning with like [thoughts of] ‘why are you thanking me? I was not THAT good on the panel, was I?
BH: *Laughs*, like a magnetic personality!
MC: Yeah, terrible ego out of control of course, it was me! Which, I'm really glad and I said, ‘what for?’.
She just looked at me and went ‘thank you’, and I was like ‘what? Why are you thanking me?’ and she said, ‘because I used to be a nurse’. She said, ‘but now I work full time in Fair Share, my local food bank, and she said I'm continually packing up packages for babies and little ones and they always have an Ella's Kitchen product in there and I just wanted to thank you’ and she squeezed by arm and walked off and I was like ‘wow that's really powerful’.
So, you ask me about that you know ‘[are you] just?’ Yeah, maybe it is just baby food, but we’d like to have actually much, much deeper connections and do much more than just supply baby food if that makes sense?
BH: Let's just take a little step back because I'd love to just understand a bit more about your own journey if that's okay? You've clearly got kind of purpose and vision and passion for what you're what you're doing. It feels like you have a bit of a vision to change the world, or at least the bits that you have control over, I'd really love to understand how you kind of come to the place that you're in now. So how did it come all come about?
MC: Yeah, there was no plan. I went to university, and I did those things at school where they predict where you'd end up and you had to fill out all these forms and all this sort of psychometric testing and it said, ‘this is what you're going to do’.
I can't remember what mine was, but it was rubbish it was like ‘you're basically going nowhere’. I was really average at school really didn't get academia really until quite late. I was lucky to get into university, went to Leicester University, studied Geography, left university, qualified as a professional tennis coach, was doing a bit of teaching as people did back in the day, and do tennis coaching for a couple of years and really didn't know what I was going to do and. I was looking around sort of various grad schemes you know M&S was the grad scheme to get on back in the day, but they rejected me, and probably a few others rejected me I can't remember. I mean I was so used to getting rejection letters then and I went to work for my brother-in-law in a nuts and snacks business called Dorman's. At the time, [they] just supplied a few hotels with nuts and snacks and they were looking to launch a retail range of products and I went to work for them for a couple of weeks from someone was on holiday and I said to them ’Oh, you're going to launch a retail range. What do you know about retail?’, and the two owners said ‘nothing. What YOU know?’
I said well as I did a bit through this company that sponsored me to play tennis so I said well why don't you come and join us? So I did, and over 13 years, we built up Dorman's to be quite a big retail brand it was in 7000 shops in the UK and then, after 13 years, we sold it to a European plc, so I became a sort of minority owner in Dorman foods with the other two’s majority.[Then I] bought a granola cereal company, built that up and sold that, and then was looking around what to do and I went to work for Annabelle Carmel the writer. So, she's written books on weaning and she also had a TV show at the time, so I went to run her company for just under a year and then I met Paul Lindley and my life changed.
BH: So, what was it about Paul that changed your life?
MC: I mean at that point; I'd been in business for quite long time. 16 years. I always run companies in the right way, with kindness and looking after people and trying to do the best for the environment, but I didn't really understand that, you know, Paul talked a lot about mission and the purpose of the business.
To begin with it was sort of confusing coz I thought ‘well surely the point is for businesses to make money that's what businesses are on the planet for’, and Paul said ‘no my business isn't primarily to make money this is our mission, and our mission is to improve children's lives through developing healthy relationships with food’ and we did, and continue to do a huge amount around our mission that doesn't pay back financially at all. It's got nothing to do with money. We did an event recently hopefully we can talk about it at the Houses of Parliament, and it's got nothing to do with money it has everything to do with improving children's health and nutrition. So I thought ‘wow this is a bit wacky, this is a bit different and you know I was bowled over by Paul and his passion and his, you know integrity, you know I think at the time I thought ‘well this looks fun this is different and over the years you know, quick quite quickly, over the first few years ‘I don't know, this is it for me’, and then I was introduced to the B Corp movement we certified us as a people and my life switched again.
BH: When did you do the B Corp certification?
BH: 2016 it was fairly early doors. Certainly, in the UK. Not a lot of people were doing it where they?
MC: No, I think there were only about 70-80 companies that were certified.
I meet CEOs, obviously we all meet CEOs, the whole time and I've never met a CEO that hasn't claimed their business is saving the world. Everybody thinks they…it’s a bit like dogs. Like we’ve both got dogs we talk about dogs right? We all think we've got the best dogs at home. ‘Oh, our breed’s the best they’re most cuddly’, and the same is with people's businesses.
So, my challenge to that is, well if we all really think we're doing the best from a sustainability point of view, how come the world isn't getting saved. Also, if you say you're running a great company and you haven't had any sort of external validation, well who says you're…it’s a great company? I really, really believe that a CEO’s responsibility is not just to the company they run. I believe they have external responsibilities to all of their partners and suppliers that they use, and we need the great companies to stand up and lead and inspire all the other companies so, my challenge is, if you think you're running a great company how are you persuading and inspiring other companies to follow because if it's just about your company, that's no good is it? Because if your company hits net zero by 2030 it means absolutely nothing unless we all do.
BH: So other than coming on podcasts and telling your story, what are you doing to inform and educate other CEOs to get other people on board. How are you addressing that?
MC: Well, we want all of our suppliers, all of our partners to become B Corps. We've probably got 17 now in our supply chain who ware B corps and that’s through us hopefully inspiring and telling them about it and using the BIA to measure all of our partners so that's the first way and that's pretty big because we’ve probably got, you know - we don't ‘probably’ - we've got 100 people that work in Barnes, just outside Henley, probably a million people that work in our supply chain.
So, there's the opportunity. If all of the companies that we deal with certify as B Corps, all of those people's lives have been changed in a positive way. Some in a massive way, some in a small way but they all would have been changed if all of those companies certify as B Corps AND the impact, they have on the environment is going to be lessened. So that's great, so we're doing that.
BH: We come back to your point about it ‘it's not all about the money.’ I know we need money. Money makes money, that's kind of how the world goes round but if money is the only goal, that’s pretty miserable existence surely?
MC: Yeah, I was asked by a journalist, it was about 18 months ago, and here comes my defensive nature again. Shocking.
She said, ‘the last year must have been pretty disappointing for you?’ and I said ‘Oh right what why is that?’ and she said ‘because you only grew it [by] 3% and I thought ‘fair enough you know I mean the cashflow is down 7% so 3% growth big in their…double…next is pretty good but I was like ‘well, what would be a good result? and she said ‘what you mean?’ and I said ‘well five? Six? Seven? Eight? Like you tell me coz you seem to think that that number is not a success?’
So, it's an interesting question now how we measure success in business. Because I personally think the last year’s being the most successful in Ella's Kitchen’s history. We gave a million pouches away to the most vulnerable children in society. We set our net zero ambitions, or [were] one of the first companies, to get it signed off by the Science Based Targets Initiative we move forward in many, many ways as a company. I can give you many different examples, but you just pulled out one tiny metric and said, ‘not successful.’
BH: What did she say?
MC: What did she say? I think she probably thought ‘you’re very defensive’!
BH: You’re the CEO. Is that actually the job title you give yourself? We were saying about job titles, like what do you actually call yourself?
MC: Yeah, Head of Ella’s.
BH: Just as the head of Ella’s. So as the Head of Ella’s, what do you see your key responsibility [as]? because we talked a little bit about leadership before, but I mean how do you operate as the leader of Ella’s?
MC: Well, so I was inspired a few years ago by this man called David Marquez who I’ve met quite a few times now and he's a remarkable person who's written a brilliant, brilliant book called Turn the Ship Around. He was put in charge of an American nuclear submarine. One which he’d never set foot on before and he’d always believed in autonomy but never been able to put it into action.
He was given this nuclear submarine. It was the worst performing submarine in the fleet by a country mile in terms of marks it would score, retention, officers, everything. It was just renowned for being the worst and he said a few things happened in the first like month was so and he thought ‘wow I'm going to kill everybody on this submarine cause I don't know anything about this submarine’ so he was giving orders that they, just the men, just couldn't complete because it just wasn't that type of submarine and he just thought ‘this is terrible.’
So, he got all the men together and he said, ‘right we're going- ‘he got all his chiefs together and said, ‘we're going to run this differently’ and he said, ‘I'm not going to make another single decision’ and he says, you know couple of things happened. Number one, they got assessed a couple of years after he took charge of the submarines, and they got the highest marks ever recorded. Not of nuclear submarines, not of the North Atlantic fleet where he was, EVER recorded in US naval history and he says it’s quite simple, and every other submarine from every other nationality you've got one person making every single decision pretty much. He said ‘I don't care how clever you are or how brilliant that one person, is if you came across [or] up against my sunroom you wouldn't stand a chance cause I've got 147 actively thinking people who are experts in their area and making decisions themselves. He said, ‘you wouldn't stand a chance.’
I read that book quite a few years ago and took that philosophy to heart and made a vow to myself not to make another single decision or try not to make any decisions about Ella's Kitchen, about five years ago and this year we've just launched our new long-term strategy and we took photos of ourselves on instant camera we have to write down one thing that we were going to commit to make the strategy successful and I committed in front of everyone I'm just not going to make any decisions. So, if you are Head of Marketing, Head of Making Friends at Ella's Kitchen, you know, you're the boss why should I tell you what to do from a marketing point of view? You’re the expert we will have conversations you will come to me, and we'll have a chat, and I will give you advice, but you don't have to listen to it.
MC: There's a great book it's a very short book I don't know if you've heard of it by a lady called Bronnie Ware.
MC: So she was an Australian nurse who spent, I think it was ten years, working with palliative patients and patients that were dying and she's written this short book on the regrets of the dying and I talked to the team about it the other day and I said wouldn't you want to know now what you're likely… on your the end of your days, you’re in a nursing home, hopefully, you know what your regrets are gonna because it turns out we pretty much can. She's written five regrets of the dying that she says that, pretty much, all these patients had and I’ll just like whizz through the five.
So, the number one is ‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected above me.’
The second one ‘I wish I hadn't worked so hard’.
Third I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
Fourth, which is quite a simple one, ‘I wish I'd stayed in touch with my friends’, and then the last one, which is equally powerful, ‘I wish that I had let myself be happier’
MC: Yeah, it's interesting isn't it so that idea of like always [to] challenge yourself about am I doing the right thing? Am I doing something that makes me happy? Am I doing something that is for me rather than the life that others expected of me? I think is particularly prevalent when you're starting off on your career. Is it YOUR career, or your parents’ career? Your teachers’ career?
BH: We just don’t know how much time you've got do you? So, you need to make every day count.
MC: Yeah absolutely.
BH: So, what are you excited about? What's next for you and the team at Ella's Kitchen? I suppose you can’t give away the secrets. What’s exciting? What's next on your journey?
MC: I’d say there are two things that are really exciting. One is, we've just written our long-term strategy, so our strategy planning is normally three years so we write [a] three-year strategy and after two years we rip it up and sort of go again for the first time ever we've actually written an eight year strategy so we’ve gone to 2030, and there's lots of people who question that and say ‘well how do you even know what the baby food category is going to look like in 2030?’ and the answer is of course ‘we don't we've got no idea but we do know now what we'd like to achieve, the headline things that we want to achieve by 2030’, and there are three.
BH: OK go for it.
MC: Number one. We want to double the size of the business, and this is all about, for me this all about simple phrase of ‘more margin more mission’. That’s number one we want to double the size of the business.
Number two we want to halve our environmental impact. Now this is going to include things like achieving that zero by 2030, all of our packaging fully recyclable, and recycled, and put into a closed loop system, but it will also include things like greening our pension which we did this week. So, we approached our pension provider a year ago who had committed to be net zero, and we said, ‘this is great can you put our fund into companies likewise?’ and they said ‘no’. We said, ‘well can we speak to you, so this is a big company, well what does your Sustainability Director think?’
‘Well, we don't have one yet’ so where you've made these commitments, so how are you progressing these? Well, we haven't actually progressed.
We said, ‘but you made them three years ago’. So we gave them six months and they couldn't give us any confidence that they were moving forward so we move the entire company pension to a company, to Aviva, cause there’s a great movement started by Tony Curtis who wrote things like Love Actually and all sorts of rom-coms, and it's called Make Your Money Matter, and they estimate that greening your pension is 28 times more impactful than going vegan stopping flying and moving to renewable energy for your home.
MC: So, if there's one thing a single person could do it would be, properly, look at where your fund is invested and put it into an ESG fund. So it's things like that, in halving our environmental impact and if anybody out there, by the way, has got ideas about how we can measure this you know we want to open source this last two we want to open source, cause we actually, we don't know all the answers in fact what we do know is we don't know all the answers and we’re going to need loads of help during the second thing, and the third thing we want to do is we want to double the amount of fruit and vegetables that children under five eat every day in the UK. That's it.
BH: How much fruit and vegetables do children under 5 eat in UK then? Not enough?
MC: Well, not enough. So, 21% of reception-age children in the UK, so that's four years old, are obese or overweight.
MC: Do you know how many of those children are choosing what they eat?
MC: None at all. That's the sort of thing we’re talking about so that…those the parts of the business that I get most fulfilment myself from.
BH: You have four passions in your life, you mentioned to me. Tell me what really motivates you. What are those four passions?
MC: Well, I used to have five.
BH: Did you?
MC: Yeah, I did but, ever since Arsene Wenger left Arsenal, I’ve had a deep decline. But I’ve said my wife, you know, we've been married for…oh God now I'm gonna have a memory blank…we met in 2005 so we've known each other for 17 years. So that's my first passion is us and our relationship.
The second is my two girls, Mimi, and Orla, who are 13 and 10. My third is Ella’s Kitchen, you know, it's the best place I've ever worked, it will be the best place I ever work, when I come to leave. A bit like Arsene Wenger, and I don't want to be forced out after 20 years and out stay my welcome. But at some stage, it will be someone else's turn and I'll have to have to leave but it's been you know a remarkable place. I guess the fourth is this idea of people using business as a force for good and that's all wrapped up in B Corp I’d say.
BH: Do you have any parting words? Any final thoughts? Any advice to any other CEOs that are listening today? Anything you’d like to say before we call it a day?
MC: I don't think so. I mean wise words and stuff I'm not sure I have! I would say, have a look at the BIA from B Corp. Try and certify your company as a B Corp. It was the best thing we ever did and transformed our business, and we are better on in any way you want to measure Ella's Kitchen from having certified simple as that.
BH: I'll make sure to put the link to the BI assessment on the page on the website and make sure we give it a bit of a plug. It's been fantastic for us as well and it’s a bit daunting when you first start and you see all the categories but actually as you start to work through, it’s a great thing to do and absolute absolutely worth it.
Thank you so much for your time it's been an absolute pleasure.
MC: Thanks Becky!
BH: Oh wow. What a great way to end season two. What a great guest! I feel I say that every time, but still he was good, wasn't he? I'm completely in awe of Mark and the team at Ella's. What a great conversation.
So, look, if you navigate to the page on BH&P's website with this podcast, you'll find a transcript of my conversation with Mark so there's a link to the B Impact questionnaire, useful article about becoming a B Corp and a link to sign the pledge to get little ones eating more fruit and veg.
I just want to say a big thank you to my friend Nella who introduced me to Mark. Without you I wouldn't have Mark on the podcast. This is a fantastic way to end season two, so thank you. I am honoured and humbled to call you my friend. I will be back in the spring with more exciting guests and interesting insights on venture marketing, branding, martech, sustainability, impact of the global recession and growing businesses with purpose.
If you have stories to tell and you’d like to be a guest on the show, just follow the link in the podcast description and drop me a note on LinkedIn. I’m pretty easy to find online. We’ll be recording in January and February and back on air I guess roundabout the same sort of time. Until then, a huge thank you to all my guests this season. Mike Cornwell, Madeleine Evans, Alex Draper, Alasdair Moore, Jules Meadwell, Iszi Lawrence, Chris Attaway, James Colborn, and of course, today's guest Mark Cuddigan. You're all fabulous thank you so, so much.
I'm Becky Holland and to all my listeners my followers my friends thank you very much. I'll catch you really soon.